No Laughing Matter: When Did It Happen

Blog post by Randi Richardson

The abbreviated article from the Telephone

Last week our readers were asked to guess when June Fulford assaulted the teacher of her first-grade son who had been whipped for laughing out loud.  If you guessed 1937, you were right.  The story was based on an article published on page one of the Bloomington (IN) Daily Telephone on April 22, 1937.

Although it was June Fulford featured in the Telephone’s story, there was no June Fulford in the 1930 or 1940 census records for Monroe County.  There was, however, a Sarah Jane Fulford in Washington Township among the 1940 census records, the mother of a son old enough to be the first-grader in question.  Sarah Jane was the wife of William Fulford, and in 1940, the Fulford family was noted on Harris Road in a household with five Fulford children and a nephew, 19-year-old Robert Lydy.  The children ranged in age from 5 to 20.  Austin, age 9, was likely the first-grader who received the whipping.

According to information in the census record, first grade was the highest grade Austin completed.  His three older siblings—Lillian, Harley and Mildred—had sixth-grade educations and his parents only a second-grade education.  Five-year-old Ralph, the youngest child in the family, had not yet attended school.

The Fulfords owned their own home valued at $1,000 and William was a laborer who worked on the roads.  In the year just past, he had worked only 29 weeks out of 52, and had earned only $429 for his efforts.  He died on February 28, 1948, of a fractured skull suffered in a car accident.  Sarah Jane, a widow, died at the age of 78 on January 7, 1967, at the Indiana State Hospital for Chest Diseases in Rockville, Indiana.   Her body was returned to Monroe County for burial in the Hindostan Cemetery.

Big Dave Van Buskirk Went to War

Blog post by Steve Rolfe

big daveOne of the “secrets” of Monroe County Civil War history is that the largest man to serve in the Union army during the entire war was Monroe County’s  own David Van Buskirk, or, as he is familiarly known, Big Dave. He was said to be 6’ 10 ½“ in his stocking feet and to weigh about 375 pounds. Van Buskirk was a captain in the 27th Indiana Infantry which was a unit that was formed in the early days of the war in an interesting way.  Every community was competing for young men to join their unit, so many recruiting “gimmicks” were used to try to get the upper hand on your neighboring regiment. In the case of the 27th, recruiting speeches were given off the backs of trains in the counties along the Monon Railroad line between Indianapolis and Louisville.  Recruiters of Co. F, nicknamed “The Monroe Grenadiers,” encouraged all “really tall” men to join up so that the soldiers’ size and height alone might intimidate the rebels to drop their guns and surrender.  It was said that over half the men were taller than six feet at a time when the average height of a man was probably five feet eight or nine inches.  This earned them the regimental nickname, “Giants in the Cornfield”.

The 27th fought in engagements in the Eastern Theater of the war including First Winchester, The Cornfield at Antietam, Spangler’s Spring at Gettysburg and at Resaca in the Atlanta Campaign.  Van Buskirk was captured at First Winchester and sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. In the short time he was there, he actually gained weight by bartering for extra rations so people in Richmond could come and look at “The Giant.”  He returned to the Union army in a prisoner exchange and fought at both Antietam and Gettysburg.   At Gettysburg, the 27th had their recruiting gimmick come back to haunt them when they were ordered to charge across an open field.  The Confederate solders on the other side could not believe the huge targets they had while lying safe behind trees and boulders. The charge was quickly beaten back with over half the 390 or so men who began it becoming casualties. Four color bearers were killed and four wounded in the attack.  Van Buskirk was not wounded in the assault.

After his service was completed, Captain Van Buskirk returned to his home in northwest Monroe County. He spent the rest of his years in serving the local school board and the county.  He died at 61 and is buried alongside all three of his wives in a small private family cemetery just across the White River from Gosport.  The Monroe County History Center has his ceremonial Civil War officer’s sword and a few other of his belongings in their collection thanks to his great granddaughter and former MCHC board member Patsy Powell.   David Van Buskirk was a towering figure both in his stature and in his commitment to his community and his country.

Don Matson Has Died

Among other materials compiled and donated by Don Matson, the Monroe County History Center has two boxes of index cards for the Coffey family.

Donald Keith Matson, aka Donnie, died November 23, 2018, at the age of 75.  His obituary was not published until December 2.  Perhaps that’s because he had no immediate family to survive him.

Lots of people with deep roots in Monroe County are related to Donnie.  Practically everyone.  If not you, then your spouse.  He also said he had traced his ancestors back to Noah and the ark.  And according to his obituary, Adam and Eve.  Of course he couldn’t provide sources to prove those connections.  It wasn’t his way.  He took people at their word and believed much of what he read without corroboration or evidence.

The obituary mentioned that Donnie had several interests.  Most people that knew him might find that surprising.  Genealogy certainly appeared to be his one true love, his only passion.  He’d been charting his own family and that of others since he was 16 years old.  When the rest of us were dating, playing sports and watching the idiot box, Donnie was charting.

In the years before Ancestry put digital images of census records online, Donnie created an index to census records 1820 to and including 1850.  Chances are that he accessed the records on microfilm at IU’s main library.  It’s also likely that he transcribed the information by hand.  What a labor intense project.  The index was published in 1979 and heavily used until the early 1990s when Rachel Rice compiled a more comprehensive index on her computer.

As much work as that project surely was, it wasn’t Donnie’s only publication nor was it his first.  In 1974 he created an index to all of Monroe County’s mortality schedules (1850-1880), and about 1975 finished an index to Monroe County marriage records (1818-1875).  A complete list of his publications can be found on the MCPL website.

Several years ago Donnie donated to the Monroe County History Center library much of the genealogy materials he had accumulated throughout the years.  There is a substantial amount of information about the Coffey family kept separately and the remainder, mostly in the form of handwritten notes, placed into the Center’s family files.

Donnie’s work in genealogy is a part of his legacy.  His devotion and passion for the work he did will be missed.

Charley Nelson Defined by the “One Drop” Rule

Blog post by Randi Richardson

registrationOn June 5, 1917, Charley Nelson, age 22, a resident of Bloomington, Indiana, registered for the draft of World War I.  Because Charley’s ability to read and write was limited, as illustrated by his poorly written signature at the bottom of the card, someone else filled in the information for him.  In what appears to be in a different hand than the rest of the information, it is noted that Charley is of “African descent.”

On Monday, April 22, 1918, when the newspaper announced that Charles Nelson had been drafted and his name was among the 47 “Monroe County boys” to head to Camp Taylor on Saturday, April 27, Charley’s mother, Ella Nelson, took immediate action.  The very next day she went before the conscription board and demanded that Charley be sent to war with white soldiers rather than colored troops.

The board, so it claimed, based their decision about Charley’s placement with the colored troops on information provided at the time the registration card was completed.   More specifically, the answer to the question of Charley’s race.

Ella disagreed with how Charley’s race was recorded.  Never mind who provided the information.  She hired Attorney Frank Regester to “get up the necessary papers” to prove that Charley, a son by her husband, Tom Nelson, was only 1/16 negro by blood, that his great grandfather was “a pure, white man” and the great grandmother “one half negro.”  This made the grandfather “one-quarter negro” and he married a “pure, white woman” which makes Tom Nelson, the boy’s father, “one-eighth negro, and he married a pure, white woman which made Charley 1/16 colored and 15/16 white.”

Regester was asked to show the board “that under present Indiana law, a man of 1/8 negro blood is allowed to enter into a marriage contract with a white woman, and so is entitled to be regarded as white” and eligible to go to war with white soldiers.  Charley, with only 1/16 negro blood, certainly met that requirement.

Although the outcome of the action taken by Ella is unknown, there is no doubt that Charley, officially known as Charles Gordon Nelson, did his part during World War I.  In the 1930 federal census, Charley, a “negro,” is identified as a veteran of WWI.  He was enumerated with his white mother, Ella, in Richland Township, Monroe County, Indiana.  And on his flat, granite marble tombstone of military issue at Rose Hill Cemetery, it is noted that he died on December 15, 1954, and served as a “Pvt 2 Prov Sch Det FACOTS,” the latter an acronym for Field Artillery Center Officer Training School located at Camp Zachary Taylor in Kentucky.

A close review of various vital records and military pension applications indicate Charley’s line of descent as follows:  his parents were Ephraim Thomas “Tom” Nelson and Ella (Fender) Nelson.  Tom is consistently identified as black or mulatto and Ella as white.  The couple married in Hamilton County, Ohio, 1893, though there is no evidence they ever lived in Ohio.

An image from the 1900 Monroe County (IN) census record showing Charley Nelson with his racially-mixed family.

Tom’s paternal grandfather, Ephraim T. Nelson, is consistently identified as black or mulatto.  In 1859 he married Mary Ann Fender, white, in Sandwich, Canada, along the Canadian-US border of the Detroit River having gone there from Indiana for about ten days and claiming to be residents of Detroit, Michigan.  Ephraim was drafted to serve in the Civil War; he died of the measles in Tennessee in 1865 less than a year after he was mustered in.

Tom’s paternal great grandparents were Jesse and Lucinda “Lucy” Nelson.  Jesse, born August 16, 1790, in South Carolina, was white and Lucy was identified in census records as black.  However, if Ella was correct in what she told the conscription board, Lucy was only half black.  Perhaps she was one of the 26 slaves previously owned by Jesse, the only white person in his household noted in the 1840 census record in Fairfield District, South Carolina.  Their place of marriage is not known.

Tom’s paternal great great grandfather, James Nelson, was a Revolutionary War veteran. His pension application, and that of his widow, Margaret (Turner) Nelson, is available online at Fold3.  James died on May 28, 1832, and Margaret in 1845.  Afterward the pension was assigned to the two surviving sons, Jesse and his brother, Daniel.

If one looks back at Charley’s paternal ancestors, Charley was consistently defined as either black or mulatto due to the “one-drop” rule meaning that a single drop of black blood, his great grandmother Lucy’s, makes a person black.  Because Lucy was either black or biracial, all those who descended from her were identified as black.  Undoubtedly, however, the color of their skin became lighter and lighter as one after the other of his ancestors married whites.  Many of Lucy’s descendants moved away from Indiana in order to avoid Indiana’s restrictive laws related to blacks and interracial marriage.  Thankfully, throughout the U. S. today those laws either no longer exist or have been much relaxed,  but one must, however, ask if the changes are great and far-reaching enough.

SOURCES:  Bloomington (IN) Evening World, April 22, 1918, p. 1.

Bloomington (IN) Daily Telephone, April 24, 1918, p. 1.

Military pension record for James Nelson, Revolutionary War soldier

Military pension record for Ephraim T. Nelson, veteran of the Civil War

Military pension record for Mary A. Nelson, widow of Ephraim T. Nelson

Dr. John Herschel Lemon Reminisces about Early Life in Bloomington

Blog post by Randi Richardson

The item noted below is based on a column in an unidentified Bloomington newspaper called “Looking Back.” It was found in a scrapbook compiled by a man named Fred Lockwood.  The scrapbook is held by the Monroe County History Center, Bloomington, Indiana.  It also includes information and a photograph from Dr. Lemon’s obituary in the Indianapolis (IN) Star, July 11, 1935, p. 5.

John Herschel Lemon, the son of John A. M. and Cynthia Lemon, grew up near lemonHarrodsburg.  In 1856, when he was about twelve years of age, the family moved to Bloomington where he and his brothers attended the university.  Although the Civil War interrupted John’s academic career, he eventually became a physician and settled in New Albany, Floyd County, Indiana.  In 1929, he wrote John Cravens, secretary of Indiana University, a letter in which he reminisced about his early days in Bloomington.

…We moved…to the northwest corner of the campus in 1856.  South across the street lived Sheriff Pleasant Lorenzo Dow Mitchell, the son-in-law of old Col. Ketchum.  Dr. Eckley Hunter married a daughter, and I think Bruce Shield another.  The Mitchell family was large.

Along west side of town…lived Jim Howe.  His son went into regular military.  I think the next was even then a much worse, two-story brick where Joseph A. Wright* had lived perhaps in his janitor student days.  Emmanuel Marquis, who had served in the U. S. Consulate in some German town, wrapped up a brick that Joe Wright had hodded to the top wall of the Bloomington courthouse.  The brick was presented with some ceremony at Berlin where Wright was minister.  Prof. Marquis said the intention was to show his home folks how a man of the humble laboring class could in America go up to a high place…

North of the old Gov. Wright brick was the large white frame house of Mr. Batterton, the tinner.  He had five daughters.  Jake Wolfe married one and Madison Evans married another daughter.  The Battertons belonged to the Christian Church, and Evans was preparing to become a preacher in that denomination.  He often came to our house to see my older brothers, Alexander Downey and Alfred Homer Lemon.  The death of Evans in 1865 or 1866 was a sad time in our neighborhood.

Next north of the Batterton house lived Mr. McFetteridge (consider McPhetridge and McFetridge as spelling variants) for many years clerk of the court.  After a short distance over low ground was the depot on east side of the railroad.  I think my father owned a lot or two about where the Orchard House is, or was.

We owned a five-acre wood and pasture lot one-half mile or so west of town, south of the Acuff place.  Dr. James F. Dodds’ equal size lot was joining on the south.  Our lot had old, wide-spreading beech trees.  It was a grass slope divided by a small, rippling stream.  Students came often here to declaim or rehearse, especially in commencement time…

I belonged to a militia company.  Several local students belonged, drilling in the clean shade of Dunn’s woods on Saturday, once staying up the night when there was alarm of being attacked by Greene County Butternuts or Copperheads.  The drum beatings, the enlistings and speakings were in the courthouse and public square.  In the college campus, it was quiet as a country Sabbath when a professor was told a student had joined the army, his manner was serious and sad.  Professor Wylie’s son was dead.  Sammy Dodds, the two friends, was dead in distant, bleak Missouri.

Many other young flowers of hope and all faithfulness were dead.  What could these venerable scholar-saints do but enter into a chamber and plead that the time be shortened.

There was always a great crowd at the depot when the afternoon train came with the Cincinnati Gazette.  Oscar McCullough had a news stand opposite the courthouse.  Usually someone read the news aloud.  The others—Wylie, Ballantine, Kirkwood—gathered close to listen, their faces grave as if they heard a voice from land and sea that time was to be no more.  I heard little or no conversation among them.  Kirkwood was slightly deaf.  He had a cane, a worn silk hat and long, black cloak.  After listening to the news they filed away.  They were not good mixers or conversationalists but always polite and kindly mannered and pleased with friendly greeting.  Neither of these three, very great and truly good men, seemed able to contribute to ordinary conversation.

I do not remember Professor Woodburn at the news stand loafing place.  I think he was always busy in the afternoon hammering away with the sometimes large Prep classes.  Truly, the old faculty of the university were a fine, old set of mahogany…

A few months ago I wrote a sketch of Company A, 54th Regiment of Indiana, three month’s men—Captain Daniel Shader [sic] and Lt. William J. Allen.  The company was a fine, made-up group of Bloomington and Monroe County men—some from college.  The names of all are in the reports of [the] Adj. Gen’s office at Indianapolis.  My name appears there as John H. Seamon instead of John H. Lemon.

I have never seen any reference to the service of Co. A, 54th Indiana.  We must nearly all be dead by now.  I was seventeen and one-half years of age in the summer of May 1862…The operations of Co. A, 54th Indiana were for a while as guards over five or six thousand rebel prisoners at Camp Morton and afterwards served in west Kentucky before the slaves were emancipated and shows the attitude of Kentuckians on state rights and against invasion.

Asbury Cravens and his brother were good friends, and their father, General Cravens, and wife, came to see us in Bloomington and to see Richard D. Owen who had a room and board[ed] at my mother’s house when, after my father’s death in 1863, she moved and built a house next to Dr. James F. Dodds, north of his large brick…

Very Respectfully,

John Herschel Lemon, President

Floyd County, Indiana Historical Society

I will mention that in class of 1854, my brother’s name is William Harrison Lemon.  The “Herschel” is in my name.  Also Alexander Dowling should be “Downey” after my mother’s brother-in-law, a preacher about 1824.  South a few miles of Bloomington is [the] Ezra Pering or old Tom Carter neighborhood.

Six years after Dr. Lemon’s letter to John Cravens was published in a Bloomington newspaper, he died in New Albany on July 11, 1935.  His obit was published the same day in the Indianapolis Star (see p. 5).  At the time of his death he was 90 years of age and was believed to hold the record for the longest continued practice of medicine in Indiana.  He also was the father of the Floyd County Medical Society.

*Joseph Albert Wright (1810–1867) was Indiana’s tenth governor.  He served in that capacity from 1849 to 1857 and later became a U. S. Senator.  His father was a brick manufacturer in Pennsylvania who settled with his family in Bloomington about 1819 or 1820.  After the death of his father, 14-year-old Joseph worked his way through Indiana Seminary, later Indiana University, as a janitor, bellringer and occasional bricklayer.

Monroe County History Center Journeys to a Stop on the Underground Railroad

Blog post by Randi Richardson

An interesting, life-size sculpture at the Interpretive Center.

On a chilly Wednesday, November 14, enthusiastic travelers boarded a bus at 9 AM in front of the Monroe County History Center (MCHC) for an all-inclusive, day trip to Fountain City to visit several structures associated with Indiana’s Underground Railroad.  One of those structures was the Levi Coffin House Interpretive Center featured in the Smithsonian Magazine as one of twelve new museums around the world to visit in 2016.

Our first stop was for lunch at the Old Richmond Inn just a few miles south of Fountain City.  Our group was seated in a private dining room where steaming silver trays of food and a carving station awaited us in great abundance.  The food was every bit as delicious as it looked and smelled which prompted a fair number of us to anticipate an equally great dessert.  Alas there was none.

Our next stop was the Interpretive Center, a 3-story facility that opened in December 2016 with a number of interactive exhibits, a large gift shop that offered for sale abridged versions of Levi Coffin’s historic autobiography,  and an education room where we saw two short videos related to the underground railroad.  One of the videos featured a woman whose slave ancestor wore the wooden, Dutch-like shoes on display in the upper level of the Center.  On the sole of one of uncomfortable-looking shoes was a large, worn hole.  Where had those shoes traveled and what hardships had they known on their path to freedom? I wondered.

Thoughtfully, the Interpretative Center was located just across the street from the Coffin house.  Coffin, a Quaker merchant, had the house built for his family in 1839.  Although he owned the property until 1860, he left Fountain City, then called Newport, in 1847 and never again lived there.

During the course of Coffin’s residency in Fountain City, it is said that he aided 2,000 fugitive slaves in their escape to freedom.  On the uppermost floor of the three-story, brick home, accessed by narrow stairways, were places where the fugitives could be hidden in the eaves.  Fortunately, however, and due in large part to Levi’s legal savvy, the home was never searched.  After Levi’s relocation in Cincinnati, he continued to aid slaves and is believed to have assisted a grand total of 3,300 by his own estimate.  For this reason he is often recognized as the president of the Underground Railroad.

The Levi Coffin House was identified as an historic landmark in 1966.  Restoration, largely done with the help of the community, was completed in 1970.

The U. S. Department of the Interior placed the house on the National Registry of Historic Landmarks in 19666.  Restoration of the home began in 1967 and was completed in 1970.  Long-time owners of the home, who were aware of its history, kept it in good repair and preserved some of the home’s furnishings.   Today visitors to the home can see most of the original fireplaces, floors, doors and glass in the windows.  The furnishings all predate 1847 and are typical of the time period and those of a Quaker family.

This lovely piece of textile art in the hallway of the Coffin home is one of its few contemporary furnishings.

Our last stop, a few blocks away via our warm bus, was a restored Friends Meetinghouse established in 1837.  It was here that Levi and his wife, Catherine, attended the Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends along with other like-minded Quakers.  Details of the church are available in an online video and at Facebook as noted below.

If you missed this interesting trip, you may want to gather your family and visit these historic properties on you own.  And if you’d like to receive news of future trips, send an email to Andrea Hadsell, the MCHC educator, at    The MCHC would love to welcome you aboard on their next journey through history.  Membership is not required.


For more information check out these online resources:

Restored Friends Meeting House– or

Levi Coffin State Historic Site–


Shorty Owen Feared No One

Blog Post by Randi Richardson

Several Bloomington policemen standing at attention in front of the Monroe County jail c. 1913.  From the archives of the Monroe County History Center.

George McQueen “Shorty” Owen (variously spelled Owens) was a tubby individual with a cold eye who feared nothing that walked on two legs.  He had several siblings including a sister, Lizzie, who had that same cold eye.  She was a teacher in the local schools for a number of years and had no trouble controlling the boys in her charge.

Shorty, a native of Indiana, was born about 1855 to William Dunn and Sarah Owen.  For many years he was one of the Showers factory boys but finally left his bench at the factory to go into politics and first ran for town marshal about 1887.

Back in those days, Saturdays was the weekly fighting holiday—a political rally or national holiday was a sort of field meet for fights.  Saturdays was Marshal Owen’s busy days.  A cry of “Fight, fight” would bring Shorty at a swift pace and within a few minutes he could be seen going down an alley to the jail with a struggling individual.  But it wasn’t often he had to use a club to get a man to jail.  He never used a “billy” unless the unlucky man was sober enough to put up a real right.

The fights were mere pastime for Shorty, a cop who had a policy of never arresting a drinking man if the man would go home.  Also, every Saturday Shorty conducted various farmers to their wagons and started them home.  He was a sort of majordomo of the week and drinking festivities.

There were enough saloons in Bloomington to accommodate all the local thirsty and all the thirsty visitors as well.  With liquor in them, the town men fought because of differences and the country boys fought for pure pleasure.

There were several country families that celebrated each visit to Bloomington with a glorious fight.  The fight always started in a saloon or in front of one, then it continued up an alley to the hitchrack and around the square or to a side street where the family team and wagon was waiting.  Arrived at the wagon, the fighting family made a valiant retreat out of town, well satisfied with the usual pleasure which a trip to town offered them.  There were two or three families of four or five brothers who never finished their Saturday in town without a fight.  It must have been against the generally accepted rules to use a gun for few of those fights resulted seriously.  Even the use of a pocket knife was not good form.

Once in a while a bad individual would come to town, announce that he was bad and that he was going to perform in a bad, bad way.  When Shorty arrived, he would walk up and take the gun away from the bad man then take him to jail or run him out of town.  Shorty was one of the most fearless individuals who ever walked the streets of Bloomington.

As the years passed, Shorty began to have more than a local name; his name was used by mothers in compelling the obedience of bad little boys.  In fact, so great was the fear of Shorty that bad little boys ran and hid when a rumor passed up the street that he was coming.  In spite of the bad name which the mamas of the village gave him to their children, Shorty was kind to all the kids.

After serving as town marshal for twelve years, Shorty finally fell a victim to politics and was defeated by Ed Johns.  He lived only about a year after leaving office, much of that time in failing health.  In late October 1900, he went to Nashville, Indiana, to take advantage of the mineral baths.  Upon his return home in early November, feeling no better or worse than usual, he sat down to breakfast one morning at the home he shared with his sister, Lizzie.  His head suddenly dropped forward and the dying man breathed his last.

At the time of his death Shorty was 43 years of age, lived with Lizzie at 504 N. Lincoln Street in Bloomington where the funeral was held, and never married.  Lizzie filled out the information for his death record.  No place of burial was noted.  In addition to Lizzie, he was survived by two brothers, Charles of Waynetown and William Dale Owen who served as Secretary of the State of Indiana from 1885 to 1891.


  • George M. Owen Death Record, Ancestry.
  • An undated and unsourced item written by Blaine W. Bradfute found among newspaper clippings in a scrapbook compiled by Fred Lockwood at the Monroe County History Center.
  • George M. Owen obit, Bloomington Evening World, November 5, 1900, p. 1.